Fashion brand Fed by Threads is designed to be sustainable and charitable – but also affordable. Barely a year old, it already has plans to manufacture in its native Tucson. We talk to owners Alok Appadurai and Jade Beall. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo by Jade Beall.It’s karmic cleansing, says Alok Appadurai of the former vault that serves as his retail store. The building he occupies, just around the corner from the alt-retail thoroughfare of Fourth Avenue, was a dry cleaning business in the 1950s. The vault stored minxes and furs.
Today, and still sporting the original heavy metal door, it’s the home of Fed by Threads, a clothing company selling ultra-planet-friendly blends of hemp, organic cotton and bamboo, with a guarantee that every garment sold provides twelve meals to the hungry. Its yoga-loving owners, Alok and his partner Jade Beall, are vegan. Alok smiles at the irony.
Getting into fashion retail was the last thing on this couple’s minds when they took over the space as a yoga and dance cooperative. But so successful is their brand, launched early last year, that they’re looking at doing some small-batch manufacturing in Tucson within the next three to six months.
If entrepreneurship is about rule-breaking, then Fed by Threads has the perfect person fronting it. With Alok, it’s all there in the feet. Look down and you’ll see him wearing odd socks – always. “I don’t like the rules that say ‘Don’t wear blah blah.’ I’m like, no, I’m rocking that and I don’t really care what you think.”
It was this attitude that saw him, aged 18, traveling towards the Taj Mahal in India and having what Oprah Winfrey calls “an Aha moment”. Alok was on track to be an investment banker. On this day in India, he was facing backwards in the vehicle, watching the road just traveled disappear in the distance. He imagined he was looking back at his life and asking himself, ‘Are these the people I wanted to spend time with?’
The son of two academics, one a native of India, Alok was brought up surrounded by interesting people, he says. He made a deal with himself to do that in his own life. He chose not to bank but to teach, and to travel the world.
Soon he was breaking rules again, buying and selling apartments in New York City – an unlikely sideline for a school teacher. What he was really interested in, though, was “entrepreneurship for the good”. After dabbling in leading yoga retreats on the east coast, he found a business partner and began launching a “clean” energy company – one that would convert garbage into electricity, trading in India. They were, he says, on the verge of making it big, when a perfect storm of slumped economy, restrictive federal regulations and tight-fisted banks made sure it never got off the ground. At a personal level, Alok’s mother was dying of breast cancer.
Along came Jade Beall, a dancer, photographer and yoga enthusiast living in Tucson whom Alok noticed on a friend’s Facebook page. A few visits by Alok to Tucson and the two were planning their own yoga and dance studio.
They set up The Movement Shala, a yoga and dance collective (they lease the space to teachers) and it wasn’t long before they launched a signature T-shirt for the studio. Their idea was to help America’s hungry by donating $2 from every shirt to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization. And although customers applauded their initiative, along with purchases came questions: Where was it made? Was it organic? Was the fabric sustainable?
Alok and Jade decided to try again from scratch, and this time sourced a tailor and supplier that could make the clothes in America, and make them qualify as sustainable. Again, Alok chose the path of most resistance. He wanted to offer a clothing line that was affordable to everyone.
“I’m not gunning for the top 10% of America’s disposable income. That would have been easy,” he says, referring to what he believes is an unjustified hike in margins on many sustainable clothing lines. “Now that I’m in the trade, I can look at so many other companies and I’m like ‘I know what you’re doing now.’
“We’re trying to create a brand where people trust we’re doing the best we can by them, so that the average American can walk in the door and say ‘I an afford something that’s made in America, and I can feed the needy at the same time.’ The point is to hook the average person.”
Alok may have known nothing about the garment industry, but he did know – through his energy company – about sustainability. He and Jade set out to carry their sustainability philosophy through the materials they use (hemp and organic cotton blends, bamboo and cotton, upcycled denim jeans, material that’s 50% plastic recycled bottles), right through to paper-and-PET hangers and recycled and biodegradable mailing envelopes.
Many companies would have thought that was being virtuous enough. But the real thrust behind Fed by Threads is to feed the hungry – an idea that came to Alok after he received a piece of marketing mail from the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
The contribution to the two food charities isn’t a percentage of proceeds. Every garment, whether it’s a $20 baby onesie or a $90 wrap dress, promises to provide twelve meals. A dollar goes to the Community Food Bank, covering their costs to provide 4 emergency meals, and another dollar goes to Feeding America, covering their costs to provide eight emergency meals.
In a marketing spin that’s as clever as it is appealing, Alok and Jade don’t just lay claim to making a cash donation to these two food charities. They turn their donations into meals. They claim that they, or rather their customers, have so far fed almost 42,000 meals to the nation’s 17.9 m food-insecure households.
Alok, who acts as the company’s spokesman, is aware of the limits of his brand and business. He doesn’t expect major shelf space in big-name retailers (why would they when his margins are so comparatively slim, he asks) And he knows that the fact his customers are in benevolent mode when they enter his store works to his advantage and disadvantage. “They walk in having already decided to buy something and hoping to see something for them. The first purchase is a charity purchase.” It’s getting them to keep on spending that’s the challenge.
He adds: “What sets us apart? I’m not sure it’s my stuff. I can’t say we’ve revolutionized fashion design. Our project is about the people and then from there, listening to the people.” It’s his and Jade’s hope that customers keep coming back because of competitive pricing, and the philanthropy behind the brand.
He may be being modest about the fashion design, however. This isn’t just a store with T-shirts to make you feel good. Fed by Threads features cleverly simple logos and graphics (many of them developed by local artists and designers), and more than fifty clothing designs. They use real people – their friends, Alok, their baby Sequioa – as models, with Jade taking the poster and publicity photos. Their best seller is a T-shirt with outlines of six figures – a man and woman, a man and man, and a woman and woman – with the slogan “Legalize love”. They issued a wrap dress, at the behest of one customer. Their strappy, fun jumper (pictured, top) is a big hit. Also on the books are more men’s designs, and possibly jeans.
Manufacturing is currently done in California and North Carolina. Next for Fed by Threads in three to six months is small batch production here in Tucson, through an existing manufacturing plant. If it happens, expect another new slogan: Made in Tucson.
* Visit Fed by Threads on 435 E. 9th Street at 3rd Avenue. Store hours: Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 5pm.
Love the company? Now enter our prize draw!
Not only did we love writing about Fed by Threads, we fell a lot in love with their clothes. That’s why we’re giving away two of their ‘Legalize Love’ T-shirts, one men’s and one women’s. All you have to do is leave a comment at the bottom of this article. That’s it! And you can comment as many times as you like. On May 20th we’ll draw from the names and announce the winners via email and Facebook.